1952 THE FIRST 3D MOVIE IS RELEASED
Bwana Devil, the world’s first featurelength three-dimensional film, springs to life in Hollywood’s cinemas
As the curtains opened, the excited audience at Hollywood’s Paramount Theatre donned the strange cardboard glasses they had been given. They were about to witness movie history being made with the premiere of the first fulllength, full-colour, 3D picture: Bwana Devil.
In the previous decade, the number of cinemagoers had dropped massively, and the industry was looking for a way to revitalise itself. They say video killed the radio star, but it was television that stole Hollywood’s thunder in the late 1940s. The movies had to offer something the viewer couldn’t get at home – and screenwriter Milton Gunzburg thought he might have the answer.
A NEW DIMENSION
Teaming up with his brother Julian, an ophthalmologist, he created a new 3D system that could realistically be used in movie theatres across the USA: Natural Vision. It used a combination of coloured filters and Polaroid technology to achieve the desired, eerily life-like effect. After a few unsuccessful pitches to big film companies, Gunzburg struck gold when a radio producer, Arch Oboler, was wowed by their innovation. He decided to incorporate it into his next film project, Bwana Devil.
Set in the African savannah (but filmed on the cheap in the Santa Monica Mountains), the film told the story of a man put in charge of building a railway in Uganda, whose workforce increasingly falls prey to a pair of man-eating lions. Seeing no other option, he decides to take on the pesky predators himself.
Before the movie premiered, it came with a short that explained how Gunzburg’s 3D invention worked. According to critics, the film itself was nothing to write home about. One scathingly wrote that it was the “worst movie” they could think of, and complained of headaches after watching it. But audiences loved it. People queued around the block to experience 3D for themselves, and Bwana Devil made millions of dollars at the box office.
Seeing its success, major studios quickly jumped on the 3D bandwagon. Warner Brothers chose to use Natural Vision for the horror movie House of Wax, which was billed as the first 3D picture released by a major studio, and others followed suit. The 20th-century craze for 3D movies had been born.
“It is the worst movie in my rather faltering memory, and my hangover from it was so painful that I immediately went to see a twodimensional movie for relief” Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review